Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Specious reasoning behind some truth

My brain likes finding connections, and I've noticed another connection between a lot of my blog posts, and in particular the least successful ones. It goes like this:

Specious reasoning can, and often is, used to support something that has some truth in it. This does not significantly diminish the danger inherent in the specious reasoning, nor the imperative of pointing it out.

Often I find myself pointing out how some particular argument or line of reasoning is faulty, in spite of the fact that the conclusion that argument reaches may well have some truth in it. It's tricky. People want to assume I'm arguing against the conclusion, not the argument itself, and jump to defend it.

Using bogus reasoning to support a truth is almost as bad as using bogus reasoning to support a lie. The ability to recognize bogus reasoning is key. It's more important than the truth of any one particular thing. Give a man a truth and he'll be right for a day; teach a man to think and he'll be right for a lifetime.

Besides which, the conclusions under consideration are not usually "right" or "wrong". They have some truth in them, but are also overstated, oversimplified, understated, or deceptive.

Here's an example. I recently read a forum post in which someone tells about a man he saw in a supermarket talking on a cell phone. The man said, "I need to concentrate on shopping, I'll call you back from the car." The person posting, naturally, was rolling his eyes at this.

Fair enough: people abuse cell phones, both in cars and out of them. I'm not disagreeing with that. However, this situation is not that unreasonable. Consider the same situation only instead of a cell phone you have the man's son there, asking him a string of questions about why the sky is blue. He says to his son, "I need to concentrate on shopping, I'll answer you when we're in the car." Would you roll your eyes at him for unsafe driving practices? Would you groan at the idea that he can spare more concentration to talk to his son while driving than he could while shopping? Probably not. Talking on a cell phone isn't identical to talking to a person who's there, sure, but are the differences relevant?

The fact is, cell phone use in cars has been demonized. Yes, using a cell phone in the car reduces safety for you and the people around you. It also leads to more rude driving. But someone using a hands-on phone during rush hour in a busy city habitually, and someone using a hands-free phone to make an occasional call while driving on simple, uncrowded, familiar roads, are completely different cases. And changing the cassette in your car is also distracting, but no one has proposed (so far as I know) banning cassette players. A knee-jerk reaction to something typically produces a conclusion that's just as wrong as the one you left, but simply in a more publicly acceptable, and perhaps safer, direction.

But I can't say that without someone saying, as if it were relevant, "Hey! People abusing cell phones are rude and a menace, so shut up!"

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I wonder if your debate background lends itself to this passion about the issue. You're not wrong, of course, but I admit that I don't make the time to debunk bad arguments about issues that I agree with. I'm just not very interested in the argumentative or rhetorical process. I'm glad there are sympathetic people willing to give a warning about poor reasoning, though.